Historic Farmers Bank
Established in 1817, Farmers Bank of Petersburg is among the oldest bank buildings in the United States. The building is now home to a museum that interprets the history of nineteenth century banking and the connection between financial institutions and the history of American commerce. The building is also home to the Petersburg Visitors Center which offers information about nearby historical landmarks, museums, and cultural events. Given the building's historical significance and its beautiful Federal architecture, Farmers Bank was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The building continues to serve an important role as the anchor of Peterburg's Old Town Historic District.
Backstory and Context
In the early nineteenth century, the largest Virginian banks were chartered by the state. In 1812, the founders of Farmers Bank of Virginia encouraged the state legislature to pass an act establishing their main office in Richmond and branches throughout Virginia. A bank branch like Farmers Bank of Petersburg functioned more independently than they do today. Branches circulated their own notes and stored the money standard within the building, rather than at the main office. This allowed the branch to fully serve its community. Branches also kept strict records of proceedings and debts under the state system, which required banks to be inspected by stockholders and provide annual statements for the legislature. For most of its history, this is how Farmers Bank of Petersburg operated. Banking in Virginia flourished into the 1850s, and Petersburg welcomed two new banks, the Exchange Bank and Bank of Virginia. Like many businesses in this time, the bankers and their families at Farmers Bank lived on the floors above the street-level commercial space. Additionally, the bank grounds included four brick outbuildings: a kitchen, smokehouse, a guard house, and stable and carriage house.2
The 1860s saw two major challenges to the old banking system: the National Bank Act of 1863, which established a federal bank and taxed state notes, and the end of the Civil War, which compelled economic recovery. Farmers Bank of Petersburg's investment in Confederate bonds caused it to go bankrupt. Virginia liquidated its state banks in 1866, and the Farmers Bank of Petersburg was sold and its business accounts settled. In June 1867, John P. Branch, a merchant turned banker, purchased the lot for his private firm, Thomas Branch and Sons. Private banks, or "free banks," had existed as long as the state banks had, slipping through legal loopholes and becoming too pervasive to close without economic fallout. As a private bank, Thomas Branch and Sons accepted deposits, did not circulate its own notes, and worked primarily with young entrepreneurs. John Branch then sold the property to John O'Connor, who established a grocery and liquor store. Subsequently, the building was used as a private residence until given to the Fort Henry Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, now known as Preservation Virginia, in the 1960s. After the Fort Henry Branch closed, the group transformed into The Friends of the Historic Farmers Bank, now the bank's primary stewards.3
Farmers Bank has remained standing as fires and urban renewal took much of Petersburg's early nineteenth century buildings. It is a beautiful example Federal architecture. The building has a boxy, symmetrical structure with windows across the facade. The fanlights above the doors easily identify the Federal style. Preservation Virginia restored Farmers Bank to its 1820s appearance. This meant undoing alterations, such as removing the storefront and rehabilitating the front brick wall. Without original blueprints or photographs, researchers used close examination of the building and Federal buildings of this period to determine its historic look. Inside, visitors can see the reconstructed "strong room," a fireproof space with a trapdoor leading to the basement vault below. The original bank safe is also an impressive artifact on exhibit. Preservation Virginia made use of the grounds, reconstructing the kitchen and adding an herb garden.4
Historic Farmers Bank is a unique remnant of Petersburg's past and the history of banking in the United States. As a museum and visitors center, it now educates and guides visitors to discover the past around them.
2. Gruchy, "A Sketch of Virginia Banking History," 165-169; National Park Service, "Petersburg Old Town Historic District;" National Park Service, "Farmers Bank."
3. National Park Service, "Farmers Bank;" Bodenhorn, "Private Banking in Antebellum Virginia," 513-535; "Friends of the Historic Farmers Bank forms recently," The Progress-Index.
4. National Park Service. "Farmers Bank;" "Federal (Adam)," Architectural Styles of America and Europe.
Bodenhorn, Howard. "Private Banking in Antebellum Virginia: Thomas Branch & Sons of Petersburg." The Business History Review 71, no. 4 (1997): 513-42.
"Federal (Adam)." Architectural Styles of America and Europe. Accessed September 2017. https://architecturestyles.org/federal-adam/
"Friends of the Historic Farmers Bank forms recently." The Progress-Index. October 6, 2013. Accessed September 2017. http://www.progress-index.com/progress-index/news/1.1562466/archive
Gruchy, Allan G. "A Sketch of Virginia Banking History." Southern Economic Journal vol. 4, no. 2 (1937): 165-79.
National Park Service. "Farmers Bank." National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form. Prepared by Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission staff. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1972. http://www.dhr.Virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Petersburg/123-0067_Farmer's_Bank_1972_Final_Nomination...
National Park Service. "Petersburg Old Town Historic District." National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form. Prepared by Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission staff. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1980. http://www.dhr.Virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Petersburg/123-0097_Petersburg_Old_Town_HD_Final_Nomina...
Preservation Petersburg. "Historic Farmers Bank." Preservation Petersburg. Accessed September 2017. http://preservationpetersburg.org/museums/farmers-bank/